It all began when 18-year-old Hackney enlisted in the Air Force a few days after graduation, volunteering for pararescue training. An honor graduate in every phase of the tough, year-long course, he had his choice of assignments. The action was in Vietnam. Airman Second Class Hackney turned down assignments in Bermuda and England for Detachment 7, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, at Da Nang.
Three days after reporting for duty, Hackney flew his first combat mission. Somewhere on that mission, a .30-caliber slug buried itself in his leg. As the sportswriters say, Hackney came to play, not to sit on the sidelines. To avoid being grounded by the medics, he had one of his PJ friends remove the slug with a probe. That incident set the tone for the more than 200 combat missions he was to fly in three and a half years of Vietnam duty, all as a volunteer.
Five times in the months ahead his helicopter was shot down. He doesn't recall how often he went down into the jungle looking for survivors or how many lives his medical training helped him save. As he became a legend in the rescue world, he earned four DFCs, not for flying a certain number of missions but for specific acts of heroism, and 18 Air Medals, many for single acts of valor. Then came the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, the Airman's Medal, the Purple Heart, and several foreign decorations.
Hackney's most celebrated mission was on Feb. 6, 1967. That morning he descended from a HH-3E Jolly Green Giant to look for a downed pilot near Mu Gia pass. The pilot had stopped his radio transmissions, a clue that enemy troops were on his tail. For two hours, Hackney searched for the man, dodging enemy patrols, until the mission was called off because of weather.
Late that afternoon, the downed pilot came back on the air, and Hackney's crew headed for the rescue area. They had to get him out before dark, or the odds on success would drop dramatically. This time Hackney found his man, badly injured but alive, got him onto the forest penetrator, and started up to the chopper, drawing small-arms fire all the way. As the men were hauled aboard, the helicopter took a direct hit from a .37-mm antiaircraft gun and burst into flame. Wounded by shell fragments and suffering third-degree burns, Hackney, knowing that the HH-3 was not going to make it, put his own parachute on the rescued pilot and got him out of the doomed chopper. Maybe he could find another for himself If not....
Groping through dense smoke, he found an oil-soaked chute and slipped it on. Before he could buckle the chute, a second .37-mm shell hit the HH-3, blowing him out the door. He doesn't remember pulling the ripcord of the unbuckled chute before hitting trees 250 feet below, then plunging 80 feet to a rock ledge in a crevasse.
When he regained consciousness, enemy troops were leaping across the crevasse a few feet above him. Once they were gone, Hackney popped his smoke and was picked up by the backup chopper, only to learn that his heroic attempt to save the downed pilot had not succeeded. There were no survivors from the rescue helicopter. Training and experience, helped along by a miracle, saved Hackney himself.
For that mission, Hackney received the Air Force Cross, the second awarded to an enlisted man. The first had gone posthumously to A1C William Pitsenbarger, also a pararescue man. (See "Valor," October '83 issue.)
In 1973, Hackney left the Air Force, the most decorated pararescue man of the Vietnam War. Four years later, missing the camaraderie of Air Force life, he enlisted again, returning to duty as a pararescue instructor. In 1981, he suffered a severe heart attack, the result of a rescue operation, and was permanently grounded--but not out.
Today, SMSgt. Duane Hackney is first sergeant of the 410th Security Police Squadron at K. I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., still guided by the philosophy that dominated his combat career: a dynamic sense of personal responsibility and compassion for his fellow men.
Published March 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.
The Air Force is considering whether it will retire its
F-15C fleet and replace it with F-16s with upgraded active
electronically scanned array radars, service leaders told House legislators on Wednesday.
A year-long continuing resolution would cause a funding
crisis similar to that caused by sequestration in 2013, and it would
start in May, Air Force vice chief of staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said
If the national leadership decides to modernize the US
nuclear arsenal, “you can forget about readiness or modernization” of
the conventional force, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the
House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday.
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